DORAL, Fla. – Before we dole out the WGC salad bowl and send Tiger Woods packing back up Interstate-95 with his second tilt of 2013, let’s pause for competitive clarity.
They like to play all 72 at these big-money games and as impressive as Woods’ four-stroke advantage at the Black & Blue Monster may seem, somewhere Y.E. Yang is yelling into a flat-screen TV to hold the phone.
You remember Yang, the understated South Korean who played the role of Jack Fleck at the 2009 PGA Championship?
Woods began that final lap at Hazeltine National two clear of Yang, was anointed the de facto champion on Saturday night and stumbled to a closing 75 to spit up his first 54-hole lead in a major championship.
That disclaimer aside, however, picking “the field” on Sunday at the WGC-Cadillac Championship has a distinct “fool's bet” quality to it. It’s not just that four-stroke advantage over Graeme McDowell on a golf course where he has won three times; it’s not those filthy birdie totals (he has 24 so far this week, the most through three rounds in his career); and it’s not even that controlled action that has dissected Doral.
It’s the deadpan glare.
Just past the dinner hour on Saturday, Woods slipped into the interview room for his post-round give and take with the media with McDowell still answering questions. The Northern Irishman noticed the world No. 2 and drifted into a playfully flowery assessment of Woods’ game.
“The way (Woods) controlled his ball – it wasn't like wow, it was just really solidly good and impressive, you know, so . . .,” laughed McDowell, who was paired with Woods on Saturday. “OK, that's enough of that.”
Woods didn’t bite or blink. In the military it’s called the 1,000-yard stare; in professional golf it’s a sign that one is playing with a purpose.
With a monsoon of respect to McDowell, who began the final frame at the 2010 Chevron World Challenge four strokes behind Woods and clipped him in a playoff, or Phil Mickelson, who blew past Woods during the final round of last year’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the pack will be running uphill on Sunday.
Optimism suggested that Sunday’s forecast with wind gusts expected to exceed 20 mph will help even the playing field, but even the man who striped stringers all over the Blue Monster on Saturday struggled to concede the point, although he tried.
“If you're coming from behind, it's always nice to have tougher conditions. But also when you've got the nice lead, too, it's nice to have tougher conditions and you can make a bunch of pars,” Woods tried to explain before allowing a wildly understated, “I’ve won a few tournaments in the wind.”
It could have been worse if not for a drive that sailed into a palm tree and never came out at the 17th hole. Woods took a penalty drop and limited the damage with a bogey. A hole earlier McDowell also helped his cause with a chip-in for eagle to move to within four strokes.
But Woods, who began his round with three consecutive birdies and signed for a 67, carved a drive with the wind at the 18th hole and fist-pumped a 16-footer for birdie into the cup to establish a four-stroke cushion. He is 50-for-54 when leading through three rounds in his career, and is 16-0 when leading by at least four in official Tour events.
Not that the field had much interest in embracing the “B” flight just yet.
“It's not overly difficult for the reason that you can make a lot of birdies. Even in tough conditions, even in wind, you can shoot in the mid-60s fairly easily,” Mickelson said.
“I really don't have to play that much differently. It's a course where you can make a lot of pars, but it's not always easy to make birdies when you have to. And if Steve (Stricker, who is tied with Mickelson five shots back) or I can get off to a hot start, the group in front, I think we can make a run.”
Ditto for McDowell, who missed short par putts at Nos. 10 and 11 and hit a “scruffy” chip about 10 feet at No. 14 and made double bogey. Still, the man who has outdueled Woods before on a Sunday seemed the most likely candidate to play the role of Yang on Day 4 in South Florida.
“He’s going to be tough to catch,” McDowell said. “I’m just glad I was able to steady the ship and give myself a chance.”
A chance, yes, but not a good one.
That mountain seemed even higher when Woods was asked to compare his current play to that when he was considered at his best in 2000 and 2001. It’s lofty territory that some figured he would never reach again on a rebuilt left knee and a retooled swing that has eluded him at times over the past two years. The answer was chilling.
“I don't want it to be as good (as 2000). That was never the intent,” Woods said. “I want it to be better.”
This much is certain – through 54 holes at Doral he has been better than the field, but if long-shot bets are your thing, knock yourself out.